11 February 2013

A Serious Answer to a Serious Question

From "The Jefferson and Adams Letters as a Shrine and Monument" by Ezra Pound (American Literature, 1955)

“As monument” or I should prefer to say as a still workable dynamo, left us from the real period, nothing surpasses the Jefferson correspondence. Or to reduce it to convenient bulk concentrating on the best of it, and its fullest implications, nothing surpasses the evidence that CIVILIZATION WAS in America, than the series of letters exchanged between Jefferson and John Adams, during the decade of reconciliation after their disagreements.

It is probable that I could pick one crow a week with the American university system “for the rest of my natural,” but two immediate crows are quite obvious, one with the modus of teaching history omitting the most significant documents, and second the mode of teaching literature and/or American literature,” omitting the most significant documents, and assuming that the life of a nation’s letters is restricted mostly to second-rate fiction.

For the purpose and/or duration of this essay I shall define a civilized man as one who can give a serious answer to a serious question and whose circle of mental reference is not limited to mere acquisition of profit. The degree of his civilization will depend both on the depth of his thought and on the spread of his curiosity. He may have made absolutely no special study of anything outside his profession, but his thoughts on that profession will have been such that his thoughts about anything else will not be completely inane.

In 170 years the United States have at no time contained a more civilized “world” than that comprised by the men to whom Adams and Jefferson wrote and from whom they received private correspondence. A history of American Literature that omits the letters of the founders and memoirs or diaries of J. Q. Adams and Martin Van Buren is merely nonsense. Without competence in matters pertaining to Benjamin Franklin, I should nevertheless hazard the opinion that his pbblic writing will be found slithery and perhaps cheap in comparison. He had not integrity of the word. At least on occasions it deserted him.  [Cf. Lawrence on Franklin (audio)]

It was not for nothing that Quincy Adams took up astrology, not anthropology. The discrete descendent wanted a science, almost a mathematic science of history overlooking, or does he specifically say he didn’t overlook, the impossibility of laboratory methods. Take it that he saw the shallowness of historic aimlessness in his time, his first urge is to rectify it by mathematical measurement. And thereby he loses the chance of examining a great many phenomena which were and still are available for any patient man’s contemplation.

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